After all their testing, fiddling, and experimenting in white-ball cricket over the past year, South Africa have as good an idea as any of the other teams what their best 15 is. Their World Cup squad, which will be named on Thursday, is almost entirely settled. Almost. Just one question remains to be answered, and it's a big one: will South Africa bank on Hashim Amla's pedigree, or Reeza Hendricks' promise?
If Amla misses out, that will surely mark the end of his career in ODI cricket, and will strike a melancholy note. So multitudinous have been his achievements, so invincible did he seem when at his peak, that only the biggest stage would serve for a fitting finale. But Amla has struggled for consistency for at least a year now, while Hendricks, seven years his junior, has emerged as a potential limited-overs replacement. So question must be asked. And the answer will not be an easy one for the selectors to make.
The other 14 names on the World Cup list are virtual certainties. While Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje both picked up injuries that kept them out of the IPL, they are both now on the mend. JP Duminy's rehabilitation from shoulder surgery has also been going well, and all three should be part of the squad.
Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada are dead certs too. David Miller has done enough to be confident of his chances. Rassie van der Dussen's blazing start to international cricket has likely sealed his spot, while Aiden Markram's imposing domestic form will be difficult to ignore. Barring a bolt from the blue in the form of Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo and Dwaine Pretorius should fill the allrounders' slots, with Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi providing the spin options. Which leaves one place, and Amla and Hendricks are vying for it.
Many similarities, many differences
There is plenty about the two that is similar. Both stake strong claims to the space between cover point and mid-off against the long half-volley as well as deliveries pitched outside their own half. Amla's off-side punches have a more curlicue flourish to them, his wrists when playing to leg a little more sprung-coiled, while the modern brutality of Hendricks' slog sweep shows him as a batsman of the T20 age. But the crispness of their stroke play stands neck and neck. Both also carry a calmness about them to the crease, and, as such, either would be capable of playing the foil to Quinton de Kock's more instinctive dashing at the other end.
But there are also clear differences, and it's here that numbers tell a story. Amla's numbers stand almost like a monolith in their grandeur ahead of Hendricks', his 174 ODIs having brought 7,910 runs and 27 hundreds. Hendricks, who has played just 18 ODIs, has just one hundred to his name, and that in his debut match.
A narrower focus holds a few surprises, considering the overwhelming feeling that Amla has spent the summer struggling for form, while Hendricks has made a reasonable case for his inclusion. Hendricks' main impact recently has actually been in T20 cricket: he scored 412 runs in nine innings at a strike rate of 142.56 with four consecutive fifty-plus scores - including back-to-back hundreds - in the Mzansi Super League, and capped South Africa's home season with a pair of 60s in the T20Is against Sri Lanka. Amla, meanwhile, was dropped from Durban Heats' MSL side as he floundered for form, and in five innings so far in the CSA T20 Challenge - which Amla opted to play in instead of scoring a county stint in order to be closer to his ailing father - he has mustered just 61 runs, suggesting he hasn't yet been able to find any form.
How good is Hendricks in ODIs, really?
But, T20 cricket aside, has Hendricks' form really been much better? In 18 ODI innings, including his debut, Hendricks has scored just 455 runs at 26.76. In the same time, Amla has scored 313 runs in eight ODI innings at an average of 44.71. Hendricks' strike rate of 76.98 is one of the lowest among South Africa's batsmen, while during the same period, Amla has struck it at 93.99 in ODIs, despite his struggles for consistency.
Keeping all that in mind, and Amla's pedigree at World Cups, and in England, the decision might well sway in his favour. In 15 World Cup innings, he has scored two centuries (albeit against Netherlands and Ireland) and three fifties. He has played in the last two World Cups, averaging over 40 and scoring more than 300 runs in both. His average in England is among his best in any country: in 17 innings there, he has scored 851 runs at an average of 56.73, with two hundreds and four fifties. Indeed, his average in ODIs in England is the best among all batsmen between 2008 and 2017.
The end for Amla or a new beginning for Hendricks?
The two have been part of the same playing XI fairly often this summer. Hendricks has played in all of the eight ODIs that Amla has played in since his debut, and the presence of the Mighty Hash seems to help him raise his game: in those matches, Hendricks has scored a century and a fifty, striking the ball at 90.69 and averaging 39.
Hendricks had Amla at the other end for the first 35 balls of his hundred in Pallekele last year. He was treated to some vintage fare - a triptych of fours that included a silky cover drive and a whippy pull just before he arrived at the crease, and a graceful loft down the ground off Akila Dananjaya just after. He also saw Amla depart in what has become a worryingly familiar fashion since, wafting flat-footed with the gap between bat and pad wide open to be bowled for 59 by that length you just can't get to.
After Amla fell, Hendricks went to fifty off the 49th ball he faced, and then to a hundred from the 88th as he raced through the gears. Their 59-run stand in Pallekele foreshadowed what may well be a changing of the guard as South Africa decide on their World Cup hopefuls. If this is the end for Amla, it will be a new beginning for Hendricks.